Creatures of habit, some would call us. We have our various routines that start our day or help order our lives. One of mine involves coffee. It is not that I sense a need to rev my morning engine with caffeine. Rather it is the enjoyment phase of my coffee-roasting hobby. Whenever I’m home, my morning begins with grinding freshly roasted beans, brewing a partial pot of coffee, and enjoying it through the first stages of my day. When I’m away from home, that ritual gets interrupted. I survive, but on some level, I miss the comfort and satisfaction of sipping the fruits of my labor. Its absence underscores the value of certain routines, rituals of grace, if you will.
Perhaps it was a sense of that missing ritual that primed me for reflection as Judi and I settled into worship on a recent Sunday. While in Chicago, we took advantage of the opportunity to visit a different location than our usual choices. Being without a car, we preferred something within short walking distance from the hotel. A Google search revealed an Episcopal church a mere ten minutes away. On Sunday morning with the address in hand, we set out for our destination. We actually passed the building without realizing it because the exterior wasn’t a traditional church structure.
Inside the door, we began to get acquainted with Grace. Grace Place, to be exact. Some would consider that to be a more inviting, or at least less intimidating, name than Grace Episcopal Church. Founded in 1851, Grace is now in its fifth location, occupying its current space since 1985. Before being filled by Grace, the present Printers Row location was home to a business. I was intrigued by this example of taking one’s ritual and inserting into a new context, not originally made for such a purpose.
The building still boasts remnants of its industrial past. Bare brick interior walls, exposed beams, and a ceiling where the floor joists belonging to the next story all reveal a strong skeletal structure and suggest raw strength. Within that shell, creative design uses interior walls with openings modeled after church windows. These, and other symbols, make clear that this space is now something different than what it once was.
Attending worship is part of our Sunday ritual, though today we were practicing it in a new location. Somewhat like Grace did in 1985, I was inserting myself into a setting not made with me in mind. Quaker that I am, liturgically rich services are a challenge for me. I do my best, trusting that God knows I’m trying, but I often feel like I’m part of a line dance group where I don’t know the next move until a second or two after it occurs. I must have two liturgical left feet, because If movement were involved, I’m sure I’d be bumping into half the congregation; since it’s mostly rising, sitting, and speaking, collision damage is kept to a minimum. The worst I’m likely to do is sing a wrong note or speed past a semi-colon in a responsive reading. Even so, my time of worship in settings like these feels mostly like an hour of missed cues so I try to keep my head down and not draw attention.
In the midst of this, my mind often wants to compare what it sees with what it knows from other contexts. It is a natural part of the interpretive process. For instance, prior to reading from the Gospel that day, a brief procession marched around the sanctuary and down the center aisle with the Good Book hoisted overhead. Though it felt a bit irreverent when the thought first passed through my mind, it reminded me of champion wrestlers or boxers who parade around the ring displaying their belts before a match. There, it is in part to announce their arrival and in part to remind us of who the real champ is. I doubt that a good liturgist would describe this procession that way, but I find the similarities intriguing just the same.
As I sat in meditation during their service of communion, I found myself inwardly moved by the repurposing of this space. It once served a much different purpose, but as often happens in the cyclical nature of life, that period ended. The building could have been left to decay over time. Living near Richmond, IN, I have ample opportunity to see what happens to buildings that sit unused for long periods. Neglected properties become eyesores and even worse. But in this case, a new future unfolded thanks to some visionary thinking. I appreciated the constant reminders of the blended history on display; a partially opened ceiling expanded the feel and invited one to gaze upward toward the heights of the building. The partition walls that created a circled space within the larger rectangular area pulled us closer together and created a sense of freshness within the old as well a feel of community being fashioned within. The use of a support beam that partially obstructs the view for those in the rear of the room served as a place to discreetly locate the camera for the live stream and helped eliminate a sense of technology intruding on sacred space. So much intentional blending of the old with the new created a place rich with meaning that contributes to the ethos and quality of what is experienced there.
In that moment, this worship space seemed symbolic of our greater task in life and prompted some reflection on the use of rituals. If we forgo an effort to craft a theologically grounded definition, we might simply say rituals are routines that help structure and provide meaning to life. That is true whether we’re talking about church liturgy, the National Anthem prior to sporting events, coffee in the morning, or doing laundry regularly on Fridays. Though not all rituals are religious in nature, many are practiced religiously!
We take our vision and rituals into the spaces we occupy. In doing so we transform those locations, at least a bit, for good or for ill, to serve the causes we value. Depending on our perspective, we might call the implementation of ritual evangelism or social transformation or repurposing, or merely settling in. In each of those cases, the ones bringing change by establishing their routine and practice understand their intent to be good.
The effect of ritual is rarely one-way only. The place being repurposed or transformed has its own effect on those introducing the new practice or redesigning an old space. One place where that is often visible is with the English dialect. On a recent trip I overheard a conversation where one traveler asked the other about her accent. She responded confidently that hers was a New York accent. I’m sure this Southern-fried Hoosier is no expert on New York dialects, but I’d have bet money hers was German. Turns out her parents immigrated from Germany. Even though she was born in NY, wherever and however she learned English, her family heritage shaped her version of English even as she proudly self-identifies as a New Yorker. The residual effect of what has gone before has an impact on those who later settle and occupy the area.
If your heritage preferred homes with interior courtyards, you may well try to recreate that elsewhere, even though that design is better suited to warm climates than, say, Indiana in January. If lavish outdoor gardens were part of every home’s landscape as they appear to be in England, you may experience an urge to replicate that even if you only have a flower box on an apartment balcony. If cars up on cinderblocks in the front yard are part of a culture, that practice may pop up in your neighborhood if members of that group relocate to your area. If your parents walked to the local grocer daily for fresh food to prepare for meals, you may mourn the loss of that practice if your best option is to travel 30 minutes by car to shop at a big box store.
Experiences like those set in motion a series of observations and questions about rituals and new places that complicate the world in which we live. We carry our rituals with us wherever we go. Perhaps we suspend them for brief periods, but when we settle down some portion of the old accompanies us to our new location. And why wouldn’t they? Ritual establishes order and meaning. It establishes normalcy. It can be a lever for redefinition and change as it helps bring our new situation into alignment with our values and preferences or launches an effort to reach our hopes and dreams.
When a church introduces its ritual and ministries into a community, it does so in the belief that it is inviting others into a better way life. When it seeks to be present and to serve, that is one less intrusive and perhaps even much appreciated strategy. When it seeks to eradicate and replace, some will find that approach objectionable. Interestingly enough, the intent to transform is not limited to religious groups. Political, ethnic, even economic movements can do the same. When we live what we know in a new place, the rest of the story is that what we know may appear foreign to those who’ve lived there all along. And, they may not particularly welcome the change. I’ve seen that from a distance in various communities both near my current home and the area of my childhood. Rural areas develop in the name of progress. Farmland becomes housing additions or commercial businesses. Highways become congested. Some celebrate the change they’ve brought; others mourn the life they’ve lost. That is particularly true if the effect of the new rituals and their transformation means long-time residents can no longer afford to live in their own neighborhood. When thinking about rituals, it must be acknowledged that even as they can be transformative, they can also be destructive at times.
Whether carrying out our mission or pursuing our dreams, the rituals that sustain us are vital to our success. As we carry them into new locations of our lives, they help us make these transitions. Even as they support us, their effect on the wider area is a story that can only be written as we live with the new arrangement. It doesn’t always go well, making it especially nice to experience the rituals of Grace Place as a reminder of what it can look like when it does.